Isn’t It Okay to Multi-Task While Having a Delicate Conversation?

When I sit with a couple for marriage counseling, we often talk about a recent conflict that didn’t go well. Most of the time, a verbal fight between two people involves at least one of them trying to multi-task while “listening.”

She: “You’re not listening!

He: “I heard everything you said!” He then recites back to her, point by point, what she just said.

She: “I can’t believe you!” She is frustrated because he hasn’t heard her heart or any of the emotion.

I wonder how many arguments between husband and wife would get resolved if two people just took the few extra seconds to sit down and face each other. It’s tempting to say that multi-tasking causes problems.

But that’s not really the case.

In reality, good communication involves multi-tasking: hearing tone of the words, paying attention to facial expressions, noticing misunderstanding, and asking for clarification, etc. Indeed, good communication requires that we multi-task by paying attention to more than one thing. Because there are so many links in the chain of communication, there are many places where a weak link will cause hurt or anger.

To get it right, communication requires full attention. This involves paying full attention to more than one thing at a time. The human brain can pay attention to all the angles of a conversation at the same time.

So then, is multi-tasking OK? Why not drive in traffic and talk about a delicate matter? Well, it’s just not a good idea. The reason?

Communication in an intimate relationship requires your full attention to the various layers of the conversation. There’s not much left over for anything else.

Distracted Conversations Can Become a Pattern

Trying to fumble with the TV remote while making your point just means that you could miss an important facial expression, gesture, or subtle body language. Even worse, this becomes a pattern.

Don’t we already know this? Don’t we already know that it’s better to say, “Can I speak with you about something? I really want to sit down together and explain something on my mind.” I think we do. So why do we avoid the eyeball-to-eyeball discussions?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t like the uncomfortable feeling of seeing and hearing the reaction. Unpacking groceries or sorting mail while talking seems easier because we don’t have to really see, hear, and feel the impact of our words on our partner.

We are afraid. We are afraid that we don’t know how to say it. We are afraid to be misunderstood. Or, we are angry because we haven’t been heard in the past.

Lessons from Marriage Counseling: How to Change the Pattern

Step 1: Ask for a Face-to-Face Discussion

The first step to changing this pattern is to ask for your partner’s full attention. Ask if this is a good time. Ask if you can sit down and talk. If your husband or wife won’t do it, why would you want to agree to put your heart out there while they are changing clothes or feeding the dog? It’s best to respect yourself and say, “I’ll wait until it’s a good time for you, because I want to have your full attention.”

Step 2: Monitor the Total Time in Minutes

Everyone has a threshold for how long they can stay alert in an emotionally intense conversation. You can measure each partner’s threshold in minutes. I had to learn this the hard way when I had a young teenage daughter. It seemed like every serious talk ended in a disaster, until I started watching the clock. After 15 minutes I would stop the conversation. “Let’s talk more later.”

The result was dramatically different.

As soon as I was respectful of my daughter’s youthful threshold for emotional intensity, things didn’t go sideways nearly as often.

What is your threshold? 20 minutes? 10 minutes? 2 minutes?

Let me be blunt. If you are a person that wants to talk about something for hours, then you are just asking for conversation to implode as soon as one of you hits your breaking point for intensity.  One of the nice things about marriage counseling is that it has a start time and an end time.  As a couple is leaving my office, I often encourage them to NOT continue the discussion until tomorrow.  I do this because most people don’t realize how close they are getting to their intensity threshold or being maxed out by fatigue.

Paying attention takes energy. When one person stops paying attention, it can be due to fatigue. For me the number of minutes I can be fully present in an emotionally intense conversation at 9:00 am is different from the number of minutes at 11:00 pm. The fatigue caused by talking too long means that one person will stop being able to give full attention. The multi-tasking of hearing meaning, tone, and intent will start breaking down.

So, am I against long conversations? Not at all. I just believe that long conversations generally go better if they are done as a series of smaller conversations.

Step 3: Keep an Ear Out for Fairness of the Air-Time Ratio

There is another layer of conversations that is often ignored. I call it air-time. How much time does he get to talk versus how much time she gets to talk? It’s helpful to watch for who dominates the air-time and try to even it out.

Aim to keep in balance the minutes that you are talking and how much the other person is talking. People who hog the air-time are usually flirting with misunderstanding. Monitoring the air-time ratio is one of the best ways to keep things, fair, and respectful.

How to Monitor the Air-Time

If you tend to do most of the talking, just stop and listen. Yes, you can resist the urge to keep talking. The proof of this is that if someone like your boss or principal client called in the middle of it, you would probably be able to switch gears quickly.

If you tend to do most of the listening, quietly say something like, “I would appreciate it if you would listen as much as I am listening to you” (no sarcasm). If that seems strange, keep in mind that there are sometimes simple changes that quickly bring the air-time into a fair balance. For example, usually one person is faster on their feet in an argument. The words come to them quickly and easily. If you are that person, you may need to let more silence hang for a few seconds so that the other person can collect his or her thoughts.

The next time you discuss something important to you, experiment with using these three steps. After a little practice, the benefits will make you glad you made the effort.